I once heard someone say that, “Psychotherapy is about the past, life coaching is about the future, and spiritual work is about the present moment”.
I felt a power to that model when I first heard it. In the years since, I’ve often thought about and examined it.
An example of how that model would look: let’s say a person is getting in trouble at work and with family and friends, because they let their email inbox pile up, usually not replying to any email that requires any effort, emotional engagement, or time.
As most people reading this probably know, if the email-avoider went to a psychotherapist, the therapist might ask,
“This pattern of email avoidance … does it remind you of anything from your past, specifically from your childhood?”
Let’s see …. hmmm …. well, yes. My mother used to always make me write thank-you notes to people for the birthday and Christmas gifts they’d given me. She’d make me sit there for hours, without a break, until I finished writing them all perfectly. I hated it. It was torture.
“Is there voice is there speaking in your head when you see your inbox full of important emails to reply to”?
Yeah. The voice says, you need to sit here for the rest of the day and write a perfect and thorough reply to all of the emails until your inbox is empty. If you don’t do that, you will be a bad person, and people won’t love you.
“Whose voice is that speaking?”
Well, my mother’s. You knew that.
“OK, I want you to close your eyes for a minute. Let’s go back in time, and see what the little child you needed to feel safe when your mother was hovering over you and making you write all those torturous thank you notes. What would Big You say to keep Little You feel protected …”
Meanwhile, if the email-avoider went to a life coach, the coach might ask, as soon as the client came through the door and got settled, “Hey, getting to know you here … tell me, where do you want to go in life? What are your deepest goals? Who do you want to be in this life?”
Well, I want to start my own company, and have the company thrive. In service of that, I want to be a powerful, responsible person who meets the goals I set for myself, and who other people find to be reliable, for example in closing communication loops. I’m not always that, but that’s where I want to get to.
[At the end of the session]: “OK, great, based on what we talked about today, here’s your assignment before our next session: first, get up at seven every weekday, to work out for no less than half an hour each day. Second, get to all of your meetings at least five minutes early. Lastly, I want you to reply to and clear out more emails than you receive, each day. Do you commit to doing all of that? … Excellent.”
[Halfway through the next session] “So, it’s awesome that you got up at seven and worked out, and that you got places early. And how’d the clearing out the emails go?”
[Looking down] Ummm … not so well.
“OK. Tell me about what happened”
[Five minutes later] “OK, before next session, I want you to call me each morning to report your progress with dealing with emails the day before. And, now, let’s focus again on that goal that you told me that you have for the future – starting your own successful company. We’re going to get you to the point where the pull of that positive future is a stronger and more compelling force for you than your resistance to replying to emails.
I want you to close your eyes, and envision that company being the reality that you’re living in now. I want you to close your eyes, look around, and *see* the CEO office that you’re in, see the expensive new furniture, feel the good feeling knowing that your company’s product is helping people’s lives, envision seeing a clear inbox on your computer monitor …”
Meanwhile, if the email-avoider went to a spiritual or meditation teacher, after some preliminaries, the teacher might say, “OK, leaving aside what’s been happening in the rest of your life – I am curious what you are present to right now, when you check in with your flow of body sensations and thoughts.”
Hmmmm …. I’m noticing a slight feeling of agitation and restlessness.
“And where in your body do you feel that agitation?”
I’m noticing a feeling of pressure in my chest.
“Tell me more about the pressure. What’s it like?”
It feels unpleasant. It’s undulating, and pulsing. It looks like a glob of gross black pudding, hovering behind my solar plexus, and expanding out to either side.
“And if this pressure had a voice, what would it be saying?”
It’s saying to me that I need to do something right now, that I need to get something done, that I need to get going on things, and do them perfectly, or else I’ll be a weak, empty, bad person.
“Great. Thanks. Ok, now, I want you to relax, and slowly close your eyes. I want you to sit with that pressure feeling in your chest for a bit, and hang out with it for a bit. I want you to make friends with it and give it some space, without trying to change it or mess around with it in any way …”
Again, as the formula goes:
* Psychotherapy equals clearing up the unfinished business from the past by exploring past memories in a new light
* Life coaching involves creating a vision for a positive future, moving towards that vision, and clearing up and dealing with anything that gets in the way of success in that
* Spiritual work involves diving deeply into the present, and clearing up any karmic residue that one encounters by deeply and openly experiencing it “in the now”.
It’s a neat and simple way of looking at things.
In the years since I first heard this model, I’ve examined it against my own experience and observations. And, as much fun as it is to think about … I think that it’s bunk.
In my experience and observation, competent and effective psychotherapists, life coaches, and spiritual/meditation teachers all work with people in all three ways, sometimes even going against type with what they emphasize.
Especially in modern America, with all of its cross pollination of traditions, such simple distinctions are not viable. Many coaches and spiritual teachers that I know of have trained as therapists, and many coaches I know have therapy-like explorations of childhood events as part of their work. Many spiritual teachers I have worked with have studied psychology, and some have studied coaching too. And, maybe it’s the Bay Area, but a majority therapists and coaches that I know have a deep interest in and experience of meditation and spirituality.
There are forms of cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy that focus on setting and achieving goals, and, like life coaching, deal with negative blockages mostly as they pop up and sabotage moving towards a vision of the future. There are forms of therapy and coaching, for example Gestalt therapy, Hakomi therapy, and mindfulness-based coaching, that delve deeply into awareness of the present moment. And the Diamond Heart spiritual path involves explicitly exploring impactful memories from the past.
Sometimes, during interviews with my Buddhist teachers, they have asked me to only talk about what was happening in my immediate experiences (Tenshin Reb Anderson specifically has often done this). But, nine times out of ten, my spiritual/Buddhist teachers have been happy to talk with me about how to have a more liberated memory around things that have happened in my past, or how I can achieve my positive goals for the future in a healthy way.
Bottom line: bunk.
I enjoy using all three ways of working in my meditation teaching and coaching, as feels appropriate and effective.